Criterion Sunday 270: Casque d’or (1952)

After a decade or two of films noirs, films of picturesque hoodlums lurking in the chiaroscuro frame, the French were pretty excellent at black-and-white crime thrillers, and for me this must rank as one of the finest. Jacques Becker hits all the expected notes with Simone Signoret as Marie, a prostitute who hangs out with some rather unsavoury types (including the no-good Félix), who falls for a carpenter and ex-hood Georges (Serge Reggiani). There’s no shortage of doomed romance, of beautiful close-ups of Signoret and her striking golden hair (the “golden helmet” referenced by the title), and exquisitely framed and filmed sequences, as he falls back into a world of crime all for the sake of Marie. The narrative is tightly structured and moves forward implacably, save for an all-too-brief sequence of the two in love by a riverside somewhere in the middle of the film, before the tragic denouement is set up.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s eight minutes of silent 8mm footage shot on the set of the film, during the sequence where Georges and Marie first meet and dance together, presented with an optional commentary from Philip Kemp, who picks out the key figures and explains a little of what we’re seeing. It’s certainly interesting to get this brief glimpse at how studio filmmaking was done in France before the New Wave.
  • We get around 27 minutes of Cinéastes de notre temps: Jacques Becker (1967, dir. Claude de Givray), originally well over an hour in length, although another five minutes show up on the Touchez pas au grisbi disc, next up in the Criterion collection. Several of Becker’s collaborators speak about his work (he died in 1960, shortly after Le Trou), and Givray’s technique with the talking heads is to cross-cut between them, as if they’re all in dialogue with one another, and may be a tip of the hat to Becker’s own (relatively) frenetic editing style, which his editor Marguerite Renoir speaks a bit about.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Becker; Writers Becker and Jacques Companéez; Cinematographer Robert Le Febvre; Starring Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani, Claude Dauphin; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 27 October 2019.

당신자신과 당신의 것 Dangsinjasingwa dangsinui geot (Yourself and Yours, 2016)

Sticking with non-American comedy-drama films, one of the masters of this particular blend is the Korean director Hong Sang-soo, who seems to put out several films every year each telling a complicated story of fraught relationships often (though not always) with a comic undertone. He made three films in 2017 for example, at least one of which (Claire’s Camera) is definitely in the same vein and picks up more closely on the Éric Rohmer influences given its French seaside setting (a director well worth checking out for his comic relationship dramas). You could also look back to 2013’s Our Sunhi as another excellent example of his particular touch.


Quite what’s going on with the characters at the heart of this film isn’t ever clear — the leading lady may or may not have a doppelgänger, or an identical twin, or maybe it’s just a game, or some kind of memory issue, or maybe it’s just cinema — but it does that familiar Hong thing of following young people in and out of various bars, where they are seen eating and drinking. There’s even a character who’s a film director. The leading man is working through his feelings about his girlfriend going out drinking heavily with other men, as reported second-hand and then constantly commented on by a variety of friends and barflies. But really, that’s what the film is all about — fragile male insecurity — and it does so very nimbly, with a typical (for this era of Hong’s style) Rohmeresque lightness of touch. His individual films may feel slight at times, but I believe Hong’s body of work is likely to compare with many of film’s greats.

Yourself and Yours film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Hong Sang-soo 홍상수; Cinematographer Park Hong-yeol 박홍열; Starring Kim Joo-hyuk 김주혁, Lee Yoo-young 이유영; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 7 February 2019.

Animals (2019)

Moving in my theme week to a non-American setting, this is a film by an Australian director but set in Ireland (although the original novel was set in England). It’s very much less a comedy in generic form, although Alia Shawkat’s character has a black comedic spirit, and somehow infuses the dramatic elements with a sense of playfulness. It’s fair to say that not every critic was particularly enamoured of this film, but like a lot of the comedy-drama films I’m covering this week, it’s the relationship elements that complicate the story and create a darker undertow, which I think is well exploited here.


I don’t really know sometimes why I give ratings to films, but there’s an allure to it, the possibility of further stratification and classification for the unruly diversity of filmmaking, though it’s mostly just a way to easily indicate that I liked or disliked something. I have tried to simplify it to a sort of traffic-lights system, which is much the same as thumbs-up/thumbs-down simplification with an extra category for ‘meh’. Needless to say, it’s an inadequate way of assessing a film, and so the vast majority of my ratings are ‘GOOD’ (or if we’re doing star ratings, *** or ***½, perhaps) and those could go either way: they could be bad films I’m trying to find something nice to say about, or great films I need some time to sit with before I’m willing to take the extra step of proclaiming their greatness. Maybe in fact, the idea of talking about good or bad, great or failed, is just a bad way of talking about films; it should really be about what they inspire us to think about, or how they make us feel, or how they make us want to think differently about life and some peoples’ experiences of it.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that I think I really liked Animals but maybe I’m not exactly sure. After all, the characters themselves are pretty unlikeable people, though Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat are both very good at making them appealing despite all their flaws, and their increasingly tedious commitment to partying and getting drunk. Watching Shawkat minesweeping all the leftover white wine in a bar helped to really make me feel all that drinking in a visceral way, and I too know the bitter reality of waking up the next morning after too much white wine (and the white stuff is very much their drink here, though there’s plenty of other controlled substances too). It’s a film about feeling like maybe you’re growing out of your 20s, and maybe you need something more, but not being sure about what that “more” might be. You (and in this film, that “you” is Grainger’s Laura) think it might be about settling down, getting married, moving out of your shared house with your best friend (that’s Shawkat’s Tyler), or maybe it’s about applying yourself to the creative work you really want to do but have never managed to focus on — but it’s equally clear that maybe you don’t have a clue.

I love Alia Shawkat, and she is excellent at embodying this unruly young woman, but her Tyler isn’t unlike the one in Fight Club, a sort of unknowable character interpreted by those around her (chiefly Laura, for Laura’s is the film’s point of view for the most part), a cipher, an enabler or just a convenient excuse for the life you’re living and the decisions you’re putting off. Appropriately, then, she is given some rather arch and unnatural dialogue at times, as if to almost highlight her place is within this narrative of Laura’s journey. Grainger is the one who shines most as an actor, conveying the confusion of her age, and of the expectations placed upon her (gently, or by herself, but nevertheless very palpable). The men, and there are several, seem almost forgettable by contrast, but really this is a film about female friendship above all and that’s what I loved about it, for all that both are quite difficult and unlikeable as people. I probably shouldn’t have cared about them, but yet I ended up doing so (that’s the acting) and feeling like maybe they were the ones who should have been in a relationship, and maybe they were.

Animals film posterCREDITS
Director Sophie Hyde; Writer Emma Jane Unsworth (based on her novel); Cinematographer Bryan Mason; Starring Holliday Grainger, Alia Shawkat, Fra Fee; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Saturday 3 August 2019.

Girlfriends (1978)

On Friday this week, a film is being released to UK cinemas called Brittany Runs a Marathon, which is billed as a comedy-drama. And while I haven’t yet seen it, I want to attempt something a little more difficult this week, which is to theme a week around the hybrid form of comedy and drama, particularly as it’s cropped up in recent American cinema. I’m not sure how much has been written about this particular category of film, and frankly I’m not exactly sure how to define it, except I think that a number of films have managed to successfully (in my opinion, but not in everybody’s) blend the two forms, such that they’re not simply comedies with serious dramatic themes or vice versa, but they amount to their own specific thing. The 1970s was a great time for new voices in American cinema, none more so than the women who have largely been (unfairly) forgotten since then. Once such voice was Claudia Weill, who went on to a career in TV, but made a captivating portrait of the era with Girlfriends, in which the comic elements of Melanie Mayron’s central character are tempered by the frustration of the situations she finds herself in.


This is the kind of small canvas of emotionally-honest socially-conscious filmmaking that must have been about a fair bit in the 1970s but is very hard to get to see, isn’t part of a curriculum or a constantly rotating canon of the era, and it should be. Plenty of people have mentioned modern parallels (much of it in television), but there were a number of women making American films in the 70s and 80s who just haven’t been given their due (for example Joan Micklin Silver, whose Hester Street I reviewed recently, or even Elaine May, only recently getting any kind of critical rehabilitation). That said, there are clearly aspects that have dated: the idea of someone working as a part-time photographer, selling small commissions and working bar mitzvahs and weddings to make ends meet, able to have their own place in NYC. But largely this film remains utterly delightful: Melanie Mayron (who would go on to work more in directing) is sparky and engaging as Susan, who’s been living with Anne (Anita Skinner), but when the latter moves out to get married, finds herself unable to forge the same friendships with others who pass through her life. The boyfriends in this film (Bob Balaban and Christopher Guest) are desultory and disappointing, and there’s an underlying (if never quite fully expressed) feeling that maybe the two women at the film’s core would be better off without either of them. It’s a charming film and one that should be better known.

Girlfriends film posterCREDITS
Director Claudia Weill; Writer Vicki Polon; Cinematographer Fred Murphy; Starring Melanie Mayron, Anita Skinner, Eli Wallach, Christopher Guest, Bob Balaban; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 August 2019.

Guys and Dolls (1955)

Just one final review for my musicals-themed week, as I just watched this yesterday, and it feels like an important part of the musical landscape of 1950s America.


I don’t have a problem with this being a great stage musical (and I’ve certainly enjoyed it a lot on stage), but I’m not sure this is the best possible film version that could have been made from it. What I do like, that I didn’t think I would, was the sheer staginess of the whole thing: the opening sequence, the craps game near the end, and others where characters directly look at the camera and break the fourth wall fell so stage-bound there could almost be a proscenium arch around them. It all says ‘Hollywood musical’ pretty effectively and I think it kinda works for the already stylised form of the Runyon stories, in de-naturalising a pretty dark and naturalistic setting (gamblers, late-night dives, gangsters, and all that jazz). What I don’t buy is that these songs about the way men treat women (sorry, ‘guys’ treat ‘dolls’) never really seem particularly sarcastic and pointed, because Brando and Sinatra are pretty alpha guys who look good (Brando has rarely been as pretty as he is in this film), dress sharp, do all the right moves and make all the right noises — these are men in control, and so when they talk about being manipulated by women, there’s no sense of desperation or neediness, it just comes across as being a bit nasty or certainly a bit calculated. It’s also rather long. Still, there’s a huge amount that’s great too, there are at least a couple of really top songs (indeed, the “Luck Be a Lady” rendition was the only time I really felt Brando being vulnerable and needy, desperate for the luck of the dice, which I think needed to come out more elsewhere), and it looks great in the way that golden era Hollywood made so effortless.

Guys and Dolls film posterCREDITS
Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz; Writers Mankiewicz and Ben Hecht (based on the musical by Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, itself based on the short stories “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure” by Damon Runyon); Cinematographer Harry Stradling; Starring Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Jean Simmons, Vivian Blaine, Stubby Kaye; Length 150 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 19 October 2019.

Criterion Sunday 265: Short Cuts (1993)

It’s strange the way memory works: I’ve read the Raymond Carver short stories this film is drawn from, and I’ve seen this film too, back in the 1990s. I was then (and probably still am) an enormous fan of Carver’s spare prose, and I remember some of those stories and the traumas within them — the two lads peeling off from their families to chase after some girls while on a picnic, or the guys out fishing who find a dead body, amongst others; they’re not exactly cheery tales, but rather exhume a certain fascination with everyday working class lives and the pathology of downtrodden men in particular. So it’s odd that I remember the film adaptation with such warmth, though perhaps I confused its technical qualities, and the careful emotional construction (with its cross-cutting that only heightened the onward rush of narrative revelation), with some kind of uplift to the story as a whole. No, this is bleak stuff really, even if it is compelling and wonderfully well-made. Almost all of these characters have trouble relating to one another — husbands with their wives (the wives have rather less trouble understanding their husbands), fathers with sons, groups of friends, and then of course there are business-client relationships (Lyle Lovett is not a happy baker).

To this extent, when there is a shared moment of understanding or emotional honesty — like Madeleine Stowe and Julianne Moore as sisters, laughing themselves silly at their respective a*hole partners (Tim Robbins as a humourless and adulterous cop, and Matthew Modine as a self-important surgeon), or Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin patching up their differences for what feels like the umpteenth time — it hits home that much more forcefully, and compensates a little for some of the darker interactions. Some characters can be empathetic in one scene, but boorish in the background of someone else’s, and there’s a constant fluidity to the way that identification moves throughout the film. And while at times it does feel a little dated — there’s a throughline of cynicism that feels very much of the 1990s, as is some of the class commentary — Altman never loses the compassion for any of his characters (though, okay, Chris Penn’s Jerry is very trying), and it never gets boring.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The chief extra is Luck, Trust & Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver Country (1993, dir. John Dorr/Mike Kaplan), a fairly solid video-based 90 minute making-of documentary. There are sit-down interviews with the actors on the set about working with Altman, which veer from the bland pabulum to more in-depth discussions — Frances McDormand lays out Altman’s way of shooting master shots and the technical challenges of that, or Julianne Moore thoughtfully reflects on one key scene for her character. There’s plenty of footage of Altman on set, which gives you an idea of how he manages actors, and we see him making little changes or suggesting different ways of capturing a scene. There are also interviews with Carver’s widow (and the film’s screenwriter) about the process of adapting the stories and what exactly she sees as the continuities between Carver’s Pacific NW-set short stories and Altman’s LA film.
  • There are a couple of short minute-long or so additional scenes, as well as an alternate take for the big confrontation between MacDowell/Davison’s parents and Lovett’s baker.
  • Three of the songs which were penned for Annie Ross’s character are presented in audio demos, as sung by their original composer, Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), in his customary drawl.
  • Some years later Tim Robbins and Robert Altman discuss the film in a likeable half-hour piece for the Criterion release, sharing memories of the production and going over some of Altman’s influences and the way he shaped the project in collaboration with his actors.
  • There’s also some good context for the marketing of the film, including a huge number of suggested posters (some of which really betray their 90s roots), as well as the eventual teaser trailer, full trailer and six 30-second TV spots that emphasise different aspects of the production (including one which just drops the actors’ names, and two which heroically try to recount the storylines).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Altman; Writers Altman and Frank Barhydt (based on the short stories “Neighbors”, “They’re Not Your Husband”, “Vitamins”, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”, “So Much Water So Close to Home”, “A Small, Good Thing”, “Jerry and Molly and Sam”, “Collectors”, “Tell the Women We’re Going” and the poem “Lemonade” by Raymond Carver); Cinematographer Walt Lloyd; Starring Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Julianne Moore, Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Robbins, Frances McDormand, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Madeleine Stowe, Matthew Modine, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Penn, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Peter Gallagher, Jack Lemmon, Lyle Lovett; Length 188 minutes.

Seen at university library (laserdisc), Wellington, October 1998 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 26 August 2019).

تهران شهر عشق Tehran shahr-e eshgh (Tehran: City of Love, 2018)

I can’t say I was expecting a Nordic-style deadpan multi-strand story of three misfits looking for love from an Iranian film (in a post-screening Q&A the filmmaker quoted Kaurismäki, Roy Andersson and Jim Jarmusch when naming his reference points), though the fact that it’s shot through with a sort of hangdog melancholy feels a bit more in keeping with what I’ve seen from the area. It’s lovely, though, both in its filmmaking and the performances — lots of carefully-composed frontal shots, with very low-key interactions as we watch the characters’ faces carefully for signs of reaction: brief flickering smiles from the cosmetic surgeon’s receptionist Mina (Forough Ghajabagli); anything that’s not utter gloom from funeral singer Vahid (Mehdi Saki); and a hint of same-sex attraction from bodybuilder Hessam (Amir Hessam Bakhtiari). Nothing quite goes as you think it might, but equally nothing goes truly dark, there’s just the constant undercurrent of potentiality as well as absurdity, and it’s sort of lovely to see each of these three characters come out of their respective shells, even briefly.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Ali Jaberansari علی جابر انصاری; Writers Jaberansari and Maryam Najafi مریم نجفی; Cinematographer Mohammad Reza Jahanpanah محمدرضا جهان پناه; Starring Forough Ghajabagli فروغ قجابگلی, Mehdi Saki مهدی ساکی, Amir Hessam Bakhtiari امیرحسام بختیاری, Behnaz Jafari بهناز جعفری; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Friday 19 October 2018.

LFF 2019 Day Six: 37 Seconds, The House of Us, Noura’s Dream and And Then We Danced (all 2019)

Day six and another four film day. I’ve actually managed to stay awake for all 16 of the films I’ve seen so far, but this writing them up at the end of the evening is the worst part. Still, I must put my thoughts down or I’ll forget these films, so here are some more reviews. Today I’ve visited Japan, South Korea, Tunisia (again) and Georgia.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Six: 37 Seconds, The House of Us, Noura’s Dream and And Then We Danced (all 2019)”

LFF 2019 Day Five: Sweet Charity (1969), Make Up, A Son and Rose Plays Julie (all 2019)

My first day of four films was day five of the festival, which I started with an archive screening of a new restoration of Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity, with an alternative ending sequence thrown in at the end (wisely ditched from the original film in my opinion), then a new British film introduced by its director, a Tunisian-French co-production with a star more familiar with French cinema, and finally the last screening of Rose Plays Julie, part of the official competition, and a striking Irish film which bristles with technical sophistication.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Five: Sweet Charity (1969), Make Up, A Son and Rose Plays Julie (all 2019)”

海上花 Haishang Hua (Flowers of Shanghai, 1998)

Hou Hsiao-hsien remains probably Taiwan’s most famous filmmaker, though his films can be rather forbidding to casual viewers in their austerity (beautiful though they undoubtedly often are). He made his masterpiece in 1989 with A City of Sadness, but followed it with further important works, culminating with this period film, made close to the turn of the millennium (albeit restored to its original glory in the last year), but harking back a hundred years earlier on the mainland. His later work started to move towards more European collaborations, and sometimes settings, though still with his delicate style and sensibility.


I first saw this 20 years ago on its initial release, and it is still both bewitching and perplexing in equal measure. The film never leaves these interior settings, the chambers of various courtesans around Shanghai, but the camera glides around, moving first left and then right to take in the characters sitting in repose, gambling or smoking opium. There’s an almost constant drinking of tea and smoking of pipes and the word I have written in my notes most often, underlined at one point, is “languid”. This is a film that slips by, the emotions of the women trapped in this life, almost imperceptible and yet clearly fierce. Aside from the iconic face of Tony Leung Chiu-wai, most of these characters and their stories tend to slide into one another, and what you recall are the rooms, the noise, the quiet repetitive musical theme, and, yes, the languid atmosphere.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢; Writer Chu T’ien-wen 朱天文; Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing 李屏賓; Starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai 梁朝偉, Michiko Hada 羽田美智子, Vicky Wei 魏筱惠, Carina Lau 刘嘉玲; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Thursday 27 June 2019 (and originally at the Embassy, Wellington, Tuesday 27 July 1999).